This is a collection of writing that posits the very real paradox of the precarious and staunch (female) body as lived and encountered within society front and centre. It looks at the ways in which certain life-structures draw out or exaggerate the relationship between these forces: the weak, the strong. The collection explicitly folds out from a selection of poems by J. C. Sturm, who offers a compelling perspective as we, now more urgently than ever, try and understand our own unpredictable bodies within the communities we live. Sturm’s poetry is placed in relation to new writing by five women working today: Anna Gritz, Sarah Hopkinson, Hanahiva Rose, Sriwhana Spong, and myself, Ruth Buchanan.
J. C. Sturm, also known as Te Kare Papuni and Jacquie Baxter, was one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most significant Māori women writers working in English of the twentieth century.1 Sturm worked across poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, and critique, and her work began to be published in the Pākehā male-dominated literary scene of Aotearoa while she was still a student in Dunedin in the 1940s. Going on to become the first Māori woman to gain her master’s degree in 1952, her writing featured regularly in journals and anthologies throughout the 1950s and 1960s. After training as a librarian and taking up a position at Wellington Public Library, she took an almost two-decade-long step back from writing as she needed to maintain full-time paid employment in order to care for her whānau. During this time she continued to develop work, sometimes the poems were published but not always, sometimes she put them down on paper but not always. She returned to writing poetry in the 1990s and two collections of her work were published, Dedications (1996) and Postscripts (2000),2 where all the poems republished here first appeared.
Sturm’s experiences of Brownness and femaleness are deeply embedded in the subtly complex poems I’ve selected. Sturm shows us that as a writer, a mother, a kuia, a community builder, a community member, an advocate, a librarian, a reader, a friend, a lover, what kind of relationships exist between the body and society, and in doing so she shows us how these dynamics could be otherwise. This otherwise emerges through the gamut of life that Sturm’s poems run, hers is an embodied engagement and critique. The poems are at once comforting in their recognisability, but they also ravage and rage. They span the many complex spheres of life, and often reveal the ways in which the so-called public sphere and the so-called private sphere are so intractably bound to one another. In this process of eating up the gap, she uncovers sensations of joy, wonder, ambivalence, grief, and loss. Her observations of understated pain, and often injustice, are penetrated by the things that make us feel strong: finding secrets inside ourselves, treasuring the relationships that empower us, and threading the darkest kind of humour throughout. This thread casts off, torquing itself again and again around the relations or structures that break us (open). It is through this snapping open that the prospect of transformation insists: the wind, the sea, but also skin, eyes, interior spaces of the body and of the earth appear again and again as forces for metaphorical and actual change to systemic barriers that stop us (or allow us not to know we have been stopped). She insists, again and again, on a physical processing: feeling love, pain, death, or freedom through the sensation of bones becoming dust, light evaporating into darkness, and self folding into other.
When reading Audre Lorde state that there is no such thing as a single issue struggle because we do not live single issue lives,3 she calls forth Sturm’s approach to writing, and this is what makes Sturm’s work so particularly meaningful in our current moment. While she has the ability to sharply describe the administrative institutions that hold power such as libraries, museums, schools, and governments—which is what first drew me to her work—she is always in the condition of living per se (however okay or not), and she shows this back to us through language. It is her turning away from the demand to understand and value ourselves in relation to highly reductive concepts of the individual, her anti-siloing of lived experience, that is so compelling, offering a script for what it is to be an agent for ourselves, in relation, with others, in society. This is what we need access to right now, a language that gives space for the discomfort of life, not to order it, but to hold it, and through holding—pausing—we can allow that discomfort to become that otherwise. Because language does change us. Each of the five commissioned pieces of writing respond to this question of the otherwise in their own way; jumping from an insistence on the physicality of identity formation and running into what each of us understands our urgent work to be. While the texts don’t necessarily respond directly to Sturm’s oeuvre—though some do—they tip into the tenets she places squarely on the reader’s table by developing layers of encounter and the tensions and politics these encounters engender. As artists, writers, curators, and thinkers working today we share what I’m going to call a feeling-bath, and we move in and out of that bath: writing into and alongside the precedent that Sturm offers us, as well as the work of others, and sometimes the work of each other. We gather around the possibility that under every (woman’s) curve is a muscle that is staunch, that is fragile, that needs care, and takes up space as a reconfiguring body in the world.
- Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, s.v. ‘Sturm, Jacqueline Cecilia’
- J. C. Sturm Dedications (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 1996) and Postscripts (Wellington: Steele Roberts, 2000).
- Audre Lorde, ‘Learning form the 1960s’ (1982) in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984; repr., Berkeley: Crossing Press, 2007).